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Conference tourney predictions and 5 burning questions ahead of Selection Sunday

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (dancing shoes sold separately for Sister Jean and Loyola Chicago, the best story from the weekend):

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FIVE PRESSING NCAA TOURNAMENT QUESTIONS

Where is the bubble debate hottest? The Atlantic Coast Conference (1), starting with Notre Dame but also including Louisville and Syracuse. The Fighting Irish are the single most intriguing and polarizing bubble team, given the return of star Bonzie Colson after missing 15 games with a broken foot. Notre Dame is 12-4 with Colson, 6-9 without him, and 1-4 without both Colson and guard Matt Farrell, who missed five games with an ankle injury. The Irish probably will need to win at least two games at the ACC tournament this week to have an argument for NCAA inclusion — but at full strength, that could happen.

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Louisville faces a must-win game against Florida State, then might need to win a quarterfinal against No. 1 seed and eternal nemesis Virginia. Syracuse must win a Tuesday game against Wake Forest and then might need to beat North Carolina as well on Wednesday. The catch for both the Cardinals and Orange: Neither has won an ACC tournament game since joining the league.

(Honorable mention goes to the Pac-12, which has USC, UCLA and Washington all clustered on or near the bubble.)

Could Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils play themselves onto the top seed line with an ACC tournament win? (AP)

What team raised its stock most last week? That’s an easy one: Michigan (2) moved up in all mock brackets after storming through the Big Ten tournament (as predicted by The Minutes). This team is different from the classic John Beilein mold — better defensively and a bit more athletic, albeit less deadly shooting the ball. The Wolverines have positioned themselves for a top 16 seed, possibly top 12, and will be a very difficult matchup in the next tournament. Unless, of course, they develop a layer of rust sitting around for a week and a half waiting to play again.

What happened to the .500 conference record bellwether? There was a time when going .500 in a power conference was considered enough to make the NCAA tourney. Those days are gone, and at present there are teams finishing very high in power conferences who are on the bubble or out.

Start with USC (3), which went 12-6 and finished second in the Pac-12 but is assured of nothing at this point. Same with UCLA (11-7 and tied for third), Utah (11-7) and others in that league. Nebraska finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 13-5 but is almost certainly consigned to the NIT.

Why the shift? Because of unbalanced league schedules, and the relative weakness of both the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Per Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, Nebraska played the 13th-most difficult conference slate in the 14-team Big Ten — taking on top teams Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan just once each in the regular season. USC and UCLA played the Nos. 9 and 10 league schedules in the 12-team Pac-12, missing out on round-robin games with league-leading Arizona.

Meanwhile, at least a couple of teams with losing league records are considered safely in the field of 68: Arizona State (8-10 in the Pac-12) and Oklahoma (8-10 in the Big 12) scored so many big non-conference victories that it counterbalances the struggles since then.

An hour on bracketing? Really? When selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen (4) said Saturday that the group only spends “less than an hour” actually arranging the field of 68, it touched a nerve nationally. Because that is one area where the committee sometimes flubs its mission. For the most part, they get it right selecting the most deserving teams — which is the most important job. Seeding is tougher, and often more prone to error (ask Michigan State about playing a No. 15 seed Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee two years ago). But bracketing is important, too, and every year there are misfires that end up impacting the tournament — primarily when it comes to geography. The NCAA has handy software that calculates distances from each campus to each site, but sometimes concessions made for proximity can affect overall fairness and balance. One to watch this year: If Kentucky ends up with a No. 5 or 6 seed and is sent to Nashville, check in with the potential second-round opponent seeded third or fourth about facing the Wildcats in front of 15,000 Big Blue fans.

How solid are the No. 1 seeds? Mostly solid, but Kansas (5) should be nervous. Virginia is a lock No. 1, and it appears likely that the Big East will land a pair of top seeds in Villanova and regular-season champion Xavier. The fourth No. 1 is where the uncertainty lies, with most bracketologists favoring Kansas at present but with Duke pushing into the picture. Seven losses and a season sweep at the hands of Oklahoma State leaves the Jayhawks vulnerable, and an early Big 12 exit would increase the chances of Duke moving on to the top line at the expense of Kansas. Regardless of seed, the Jayhawks will hope to be placed on a path to the regional in Omaha, an easy commute from Kansas. If they get that draw as a No. 2 seed, expect some caterwauling from the No. 1. (See above note.)

BREAKING DOWN THE WEEK’S FIVE BIGGEST TOURNAMENTS

Atlantic Coast Conference

Site: Brooklyn, to the mortification of Tobacco Road establishment types and anyone hoping to spend less than $12 on a cocktail.

NCAA locks: Virginia, Duke, Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech.

Bubble teams: Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame. The latter three all are in must-win situations in their first games, and perhaps their second as well.

Regular-season champ: Virginia (6). The Cavaliers were the most consistent team in the country during the regular season. They also were fortunate to win their last two games, which allowed annual March concerns to reappear.

Vulnerable high seed: Clemson. Fourth-seeded Tigers have lost four of their last six and haven’t won away from home since Feb. 3. They’re also only 3-7 in this tournament under Brad Brownell.

Dangerous low seed: Tenth-seeded Notre Dame (7). See above for reasons why.

Coach who loves this tourney: Last year Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski supplanted Dean Smith as the winningest coach in ACC tournament history, with 61 victories.

Coach who hates this tourney: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim may be in the Hall of Fame, but it’s not for anything he’s accomplished in the ACC tourney. His record is 0-3, with one postseason ban.

Who wins: Duke (8). Beware the Blue Devils, who take a backseat to no one nationally in terms of talent.

Big 12

Site: Kansas City. This is one league that doesn’t mess with tradition — and always tries to keep kingpin Kansas happy.

NCAA locks: Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma.

Bubble teams: Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State.

Regular-season champ: Kansas. As it has been since the dawn of time.

Vulnerable high seed: Second-seeded Texas Tech (9). Star guard Keenan Evans looked like he’s back to full speed in the regular-season finale against TCU (23 points), but the Red Raiders lost four in a row before that. How much pressure will they feel playing with a rare bull’s-eye on their backs?

Dangerous low seed: Eighth-seeded Oklahoma State (10). Cowboys have hit some high notes: swept Kansas, beat West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma once apiece. They need some wins to get into the Big Dance. And the draw sets up well: slumping Sooners in the first round, then potentially a Kansas team Oklahoma State has owned this year.

Trae Young (11) and the Sooners have struggled down the stretch this season and face an Oklahoma State team that has impressive wins in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. (AP)

Coach who loves this tourney: Kansas’ Bill Self is 25-7 in the tournament, with seven titles in 14 tries.

Coach who hates this tourney: In his tenure at Oklahoma, Lon Kruger is a remarkably bad 2-6 and has never made a Big 12 final.

Who wins: Baylor (11). The Minutes sees this as a wide-open tourney. Kansas lacks desirable depth for three games in three days, Texas Tech and West Virginia are wobbling, nobody trusts Kansas State or TCU. Thus we arrive at sixth-seeded Baylor, which still could use more victories here to be sure of an NCAA berth, so motivation will be high. Bears defend and rebound, and they get a WVU team in the quarterfinals that has lost four straight games on five-day turnarounds (this will be another five-day turnaround).

Big East 

Site: New York. Specifically, Madison Square Garden. Same as it ever was, same as it always should be.

NCAA locks: Xavier, Villanova, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler.

Bubble teams: Providence, Marquette.

Regular-season champion: Xavier. Musketeers wrapped up their first-ever Big East title on Saturday.

Vulnerable high seed: Fourth-seeded Creighton (12). There was the huge home win over Villanova on Feb. 24, but other than that the Bluejays haven’t done much since January (4-5, with two wins over DePaul and one over Bemidji State).

Dangerous low seed: Seventh-seeded Marquette (13). The Golden Eagles can really shoot, and if their recent hot streak carries over to MSG they could do some damage. Marquette comes in having averaged 12.8 made 3-pointers and 48 percent accuracy beyond the arc over its last five games.

Coach who loves this tourney: Jay Wright has guided Villanova to three straight Big East finals and won two of them handily. The third was a two-point loss to Seton Hall.

Coach who hates this tourney: DePaul’s Dave Leitao hasn’t exactly brought much to the table in his previous two appearances, but the Blue Demons haven’t overachieved, either. They’re 0-2 under Leitao in this event with an average losing margin of 14 points.

Who wins: Xavier (14). Veteran team playing confidently and on a six-game winning streak away from home. And Villanova could have its hands full in a quarterfinal game against Marquette and/or semifinal game against Seton Hall.

Pac-12 

Site: Las Vegas. Better than Los Angeles. True neutral site that offers plenty of fun outside of basketball for visiting fans.

NCAA locks: Arizona.

Bubble teams: Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington. Sun Devils are probably OK if they simply avoid a ghastly loss in their first game against Colorado. Everyone else should come to Vegas feeling like they need one or more wins to be secure.

Regular-season champion: Arizona. Despite just a few off-court distractions, the Wildcats won the league by two games.

Deandre Ayton (13) and Sean Miller have had a tough couple weeks, but Arizona has thrived on the court throughout the season. (AP)

Vulnerable high seed: Second-seeded USC. Trojans haven’t beaten a likely NCAA tourney team since December, and a potential quarterfinal matchup with Washington could be problematic. Huskies won in Los Angeles to open Pac-12 play.

Dangerous low seed: Fifth-seeded Stanford (15). Cardinal play miserable California in the opening round, then would get a UCLA team that they split with during the regular season. Post man Reid Travis could put the team on his back for a run.

Coach who loves this tourney: Oregon’s Dana Altman (16) is 13-5 in the Pac-12 tournament, has won it all twice and reached the final two other times.

Coach who hates this tourney: Washington State’s Ernie Kent. Since winning the thing in 2007 at Oregon, Kent is 1-6 as coach of the Ducks and Cougars.

Who wins: Arizona (17). Wildcats have the best player (Deandre Ayton) and the most talent, and may well have put the melodrama of late February and early March behind them in time for the postseason.

SEC 

Site: St. Louis, for the first time. Will this nod to the conference’s Western Frontier (Missouri, Arkansas) at all diminish the annual ticket domination of Kentucky fans who are accustomed to taking over Nashville and Atlanta?

NCAA locks: Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri.

Bubble teams: Alabama, maybe Mississippi State if the Bulldogs make a deep run.

Regular-season champion: Auburn and Tennessee shared the title.

Vulnerable high seed: Top-seeded Auburn (18). Tigers are 4-4 in their last eight games and haven’t won away from home since Feb 10. Season-ending injury to shot-blocker Anfernee McLemore could loom large in the postseason.

Dangerous low seed: Fifth-seeded Missouri (19). What if star-recruit-turned-mythological-savior Michael Porter Jr. comes back? And what if he can actually contribute? That last-minute addition could make the Tigers a tougher out (though their ball-handling issues could also make them a first-round knockout).

Coach who loves this tourney: John Calipari has won this event five times in eight seasons and advanced to the final game two other times.

Coach who hates this tourney: Bruce Pearl has had a couple moments, reaching the title game in 2009 at Tennessee and ’15 at Auburn. But he’s also lost his first game four times and is on a three-game SEC tourney losing streak.

Who wins: Florida (20). Gators have been up and down but they put it together late, beating Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky by a combined 40 points to close the regular season. Veteran team with great guards that can shoot from the perimeter and willingly defend — those are winning attributes in March.

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